National News

FAA Lifts Ban on Israel Flights

2014-07-24 10:37:12 mshapiro

delta1Late on Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lifted its ban on flights by American carriers in and out of Israel.

The FAA “worked with its U.S. government counterparts to assess the security situation in Israel and carefully reviewed both significant new information and measures the Government of Israel is taking to mitigate potential risks to civil aviation,” said a press release issued by the agency. “The FAA’s primary mission and interest are the protection of people traveling on U.S. airlines. The agency will continue to closely monitor the very fluid situation around Ben Gurion Airport and will take additional actions, as necessary.”

Earlier, Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R), blasted the agency in a strongly worded press release and blamed the Obama administration, the State Department and Secretary of State John Kerry for motivating Tuesday’s decision by the FAA to issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) halting flights by U.S. carriers in and out of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv.

The FAA’s decision came just as Kerry traveled to the region to try to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

“The facts suggest that President Obama has just used a federal regulatory agency to launch an economic boycott on Israel, in order to try to force our ally to comply with his foreign-policy demands,” Cruz’s statement read.

On Wednesday, the FAA extended its ban for an additional 24 hours, saying that it will continue to monitor the situation and work closely with the Israeli government to resolve concerns as quickly as possible, according to an agency press release.

In his statement, Cruz implied that the FAA, a regulatory agency, colluded with the administration to ground Israel bound flights for political purposes.

“Obviously, no one wants to place civilian travelers in harm’s way, and the recent downing of Malaysian Airways flight 17 by pro-Russian militants in Ukraine is a stark reminder of the dangers posed by regional unrest,” wrote Cruz. “But security concerns in Israel are hardly breaking news, and given the exceptional challenge Israel faces, Ben Gurion has rightly earned the reputation as one of the safest airports in the world due to the aggressive security measures implemented by the Israeli government.

“Given that some 2,000 rockets have been fired into Israel over the last six weeks, many of them at Tel Aviv, it seems curious to choose yesterday at noon to announce a flight ban, especially as the Obama Administration had to be aware of the punitive nature of this action,” Cruz stressed.

The State Department pushed back against Cruz’s assertions later in the day.

“It’s ridiculous and offensive, quite frankly,” said State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf, during her daily press briefing. “The FAA takes its responsibility very seriously. I will speak for them in that case. They make these decisions based solely on the security and safety of American citizens. For anyone to suggest otherwise is just ridiculous.”

Not according to Abraham Sion, former president of the board of directors of Israel Tourist Industries and chair of the Center for Law and Mass Media at Israel’s Ariel University.

“What the U.S. is trying to do is teach Israel a lesson. [The ban] has nothing to do with safety, but is designed to convince Israel to reach a ceasefire,” said Sion.

When pressed for an explanation, he backtracked, but only slightly, saying “it was 80-90 percent a political decision. Public safety [was] a minor consideration.”

Yet, in an interview by with Israel’s Channel 2, Israel’s Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz agreed that safety could not have been the motivation for the FAA’s decision.

“There is no reason for the American companies to stop their flights and give a prize to terror,” Katz said.

Israel is still open for business, wrote Haim Gutin, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism’s commissioner for North and South America, in a press release.

“Please know that life in Israel, and tourism to Israel, goes on and we welcome all visitors in peace. Some 75,000 tourists are in the country, and their travel arrangements are proceeding as planned. We foresee the current conflict ending soon – and that all will return speedily to normal.”

Shortly after the FAA issued its ban, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hopped an El Al flight to Israel to demonstrate his disapproval of the order and show solidarity.

“Ben Gurion Airport is the best protected airport in the world. It was an overreaction to halt U.S. flights here,” Bloomberg tweeted.

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The FAA’s flight prohibition applies only to U.S. carriers, yet a number of international airlines have followed suit, despite no such ban by the European Aviation Safety Agency.

Other international airlines which have grounded flights to Israel include Scandinavian Airlines; Korean Air; Royal Jordanian; Alitalia; Swiss Air; Air Canada; and Poland’s state airline, LOT.

El Al is still continuing its flights to and from Israel and has announced no intention to do otherwise.

Additional reporting by Editor-in-Chief Joshua Runyan.

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‘Welcome The Stranger’

2014-07-24 10:05:58 lbridwell

In the past nine months, more than 50,000 children have entered the United States illegally, many of them fleeing violence and gangs in Central American countries. While Congress and the White House have argued over how to deal with the flood of undocumented immigrants, many in the Jewish community have taken action.

In Tucson, Ariz., Anne Lowe makes regular trips into the desert to fill tanks of water for those traveling through the desert to use.

“I realize it’s an illegal thing to cross the border without proper documentation,” said Lowe. “On the other hand, should they have a death sentence for this?”

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A group from Southern Arizona learns about efforts by Humane Borders to provide water to those traveling through the desert.
(Provided)

Once a week, groups of two to four volunteers from Humane Borders, a faith-based humanitarian organization, travel into the desert at the break of dawn in trucks carrying dozens of gallons of water. They follow a designated route, filling the tanks at the stations located close to known trails migrants follow through the desert and checking for vandalism (in the past, there have been incidents of tanks being riddled with bullet holes and contaminated with chemicals) in addition to measuring water levels — proof, Lowe said, that what they’re doing is really helping.

“I firmly believe what the Torah teaches us, what the Talmud teaches us: that to save one life is to save the world,” said Lowe. “I’m hoping that somewhere along the line the things we’re doing are making a difference and helping to save somebody’s life.”

Lowe describes her involvement with the organization — and the organization itself — as “purely humanitarian.” Regardless of a person’s stance on immigration law or the need for reform, she said, no one wants these people to perish in the Southern Arizona desert heat.

Like many Jewish activists along the border — Humane Borders has about four or five Jewish volunteers in all — Lowe said she was inspired to get involved through her own Jewish heritage.

“No one helped the Jews during the Holocaust; very, very few nations helped the Jews. Our own America didn’t,” she said. “I don’t think, as Jews, we can turn our backs on people who are looking for a better life or trying to escape violence in their home countries.”

“We have to remember history,” she added.

As director of Northwest Outreach at the Tucson Jewish Federation, Lowe has also volunteered with other federation staff to assist people at the bus stations, once even volunteering alongside a Native American man from a nearby reservation to help women and children purchase bus tickets. Water deliveries, though, have become her calling in the current immigration crisis.

“There has been a beautiful community response,” said Bryan Davis, JCRC director and Holocaust education coordinator at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Davis and the JCRC in Tucson have joined forces with the local Catholic service organization to offer assistance to the women and children who were released to family members in the U.S. after meeting with Border Patrol.

While the Tucson Jewish community is split on how to proceed with the sudden influx of immigrants from Central America, the JCRC sees its mission clearly, said Davis.

072514_coverstory2After hearing about unaccompanied minors and women traveling with children being left at bus stations near Tucson at a June interfaith meeting organized by the local Catholic diocese, Davis and other faith leaders determined that they had to do something and were in a good position to respond to the needs of the newcomers.

In the 1980s, churches, synagogues and other houses of worship were central in the immigration crisis plaguing the border at that time. Then, the people crossing the border were fleeing their Central American home countries to escape civil war and political turmoil. The immigrants at the heart of today’s debates originate from many of the same Central American countries, but instead of warfare, they are fleeing high crime rates and gang problems. In the 1980s, Congress eventually passed legislation allowing certain groups temporary protected status, but today the crisis is far murkier.

A 2008 law signed by then-President George W. Bush forbids the immediate deportation ofunaccompanied minors arriving from Central American countries, instead allowing them to stay in the U.S. legally until they are given a court hearing to determine whether they are permitted to stay or are deported.

Data collected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security shows that the majority of unaccompanied minors entering the country illegally from January through mid-May came from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Those coming from Guatemala, DHS research shows, hail largely from rural areas, leading experts to believe many of the Guatemalan children are coming to the U.S. in pursuit of economic opportunity. Conversely, research shows many of the children arriving from El Salvador and Honduras come from regions plagued by violence, such as San Pedro Sula, the Honduran city deemed the murder capital of the world, where an average of four murders — many gang-related — take place every day.

While Maryland is some 1,700 miles north of the nearest U.S.-Mexico border crossing, the problem has ripple effects in almost every state. Most recently, news has spread of a rift between Gov. Martin O’Malley and the administration of longtime ally President Barack Obama over where to house some of the children while they await their hearing.

O’Malley has spoken out against mass deportations, describing such actions as sending the children “back to certain death,” but opposed a rumored plan to house some of the unaccompanied minors at a site in Carroll County, where anti-immigration graffiti appeared earlier in July.

Arthur Abramson, president of the Baltimore Jewish Council, sympathizes with O’Malley about the danger in sending the children back to their home countries.

“In my view these children are victims,” said Abramson. He pointed to immigration laws passed in the U.S. before and during World War II that made it difficult for Jews in Europe to seek safety in America as effectively sentencing them to death in concentration camps and insisted officials look at the current situation in the context of history.

While Mexican children are deported immediately, there is a strong push among some advocates and organizations to declare some people from these Central American countries refugees. In the spring, the U.N. Refugee Agency suggested that many of the children traveling north from these troubled countries could and should be seen as and treated as refugees and offered asylum. Earlier this month, Pope Francis insisted that the children fleeing Central American countries on their own “be welcomed and protected,” while Jewish organizations such as the National Council of Jewish Women, HIAS and the Jewish Federations of North America issued a joint statement urging President Barack Obama to pursue “measures to ensure that all migrants in danger of persecution have access to a meaningful opportunity to seek asylum,” citing the Torah’s instruction to “welcome the stranger.”

For Rabbi Larry Karol of Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces, N.M., the idea of welcoming the stranger resonates particularly strongly.

“We were strangers in Egypt,” said Karol of his Jewish heritage.

Comparing some of the stories in the Torah to the stories of these immigrants, he added, “It really brings the text to life.”

Hearing about the problems these immigrants face at home and the challenges they face trying to make a better life in America has led Karol to think about his own family’s immigration story. Like some of the teens fleeing from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, Karol’s grandfather fled Russia to avoid being forced into the Russian army. After living in South Africa for a decade, he eventually moved to the United States, something Karol doubts would have been possible in the current immigration climate.

Using a website called EntryDenied.org, a project by Bend the Arc, a Jewish group with a mission to promote social justice, Karol determined that his family would likely be denied if they were trying to enter the U.S. today. The website asks users to answer a series of questions about any one of their ancestors and then uses those answers to compare with current immigration laws to ultimately give the user a notice of either denial or acceptation into America.

“There were Jews who left Europe — Eastern Europe, especially — for some of the same reasons that these families are leaving the Central American countries, because of the threat of violence,” said Karol, who disclosed that there are a mix of opinions on the topic within even his own congregation. “I think that there is, in many cases, a similarity between the Jewish immigration story [and that of the Central American immigrants].”

“There are other people who don’t apply it that way, and that’s up to them, but for me, personally, verses like that really resonate on this issue, whether it’s the general immigration reform issue or whether it’s this particular case, where you have people who really could be accepted for seeking asylum because of the situation in their home country,” he said, “or just basic persecution as many of the Jews [faced] in the 1800s and 1900s and therefore came to the United States or went to other places to escape persecution and have a better life.”

While the much larger Catholic diocese is leading most of the effort to aid the newcomers, Karol knows of multiple members of his congregation who have gotten involved in groups providing help to the Central American immigrants and has even helped deliver water to the center where many of the people are being detained while they wait for processing and release to join relatives.

In Yuma, Ariz., a small city situated in the southwestern corner of the state, less than 10 miles from the Mexican border, Burton Schapiro has seen the crisis firsthand.

A member of Congregation Beth HaMidbar, Schapiro is an active member of the Yuma County Interfaith Sponsoring Committee. For months, the situation along the border had been a topic of conversation among committee members and they debated how to get involved. In early July the group found its answer.

For months, the local bus terminal had been a launching point for immigrants processed by the Border Patrol and permitted to travel to family members inside the country with whom they could stay. One day, a pastor on the committee got a call from a manager of a nearby Wal-Mart looking for help for a group of people who had been dropped at the store. The group included two pregnant women and a 3-year-old. One of the women was from El Salvador and the other from Honduras, and they had befriended each other on the journey through Mexico. Between the pair they had the equivalent of just $28 in American money and needed to get to family in Atlanta.

“The story that we’re hearing on their journey from Central America is just scary,” said Schapiro. “When they get up here, they’re tired, they’re dirty, they’re hungry and they’re scared.”

The interfaith committee fundraised to purchase the tickets the women and child needed to make their trip, passing around collection plates at local services at one of the Yuma churches, and the women were able to make it to Atlanta, said Schapiro. Since then, the group has helped two more groups in the past couple weeks, offering people showers, food, clothes and help deciphering the bus system.

In an effort to not alienate some members of their congregations or become entangled in a web of political controversy, the group tries to stay as below-the-radar as possible, Schapiro said. But he doesn’t shy from speaking up when he feels a line has been crossed, once standing up at a conference he was attending where the keynote speaker was one of the architects of Arizona’s controversial law requiring police officers to stop and question anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. He compared the practice to Nazis stopping Jews on the streets of Germany. He received some boos from the crowd, but it didn’t bother him. For him and his fellow congregants, helping immigrants is a form of tzedakah, he said..

“We just want to help people finally get on their way and wish them the best,” said Schapiro.

“The thing that gets me is that they’re really just children,” he added.

Proposed Maryland Shelters Raise Concern
As discussion has shifted to where to house the thousands of unaccompanied minors, states hundreds of miles from the border have been pulled to the forefront of the debate on the children’s fate.

In Maryland, more than five sites have been discussed for temporary housing. As of publication, four locations had fallen through, including a site in Carroll County Gov. Martin O’Malley reportedly sparred with the White House over after anti-immigration graffiti appeared on the walls of the building in question early last week.

As of late last week officials had confirmed that there was an effort being made to find a location to temporarily house some of the immigrants in Maryland, but a rumored Catholic Charities proposal to use one of its Timonium buildings was being met with opposition by members of the Baltimore County Council who expressed concern over the organization taking in the children rather than assisting the local community.

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Crossing Boundaries

2014-07-09 16:32:28 lbridwell
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi pioneered groundbreaking ritual  innovations that went mainstream. (Daniel Sieradski)

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi pioneered groundbreaking ritual
innovations that went mainstream.
(Daniel Sieradski)

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was one of the world’s most innovative and influential Jewish spiritual leaders.

To his followers, he was their Hasidic rebbe. But what other rebbe had dropped acid with Timothy Leary and dialogued with the Dalai Lama?

Schachter-Shalomi, who died last week at 89, wasn’t the only rabbi who tinkered radically with Jewish tradition. No one else, however, did so with the sense of gravitas and authenticity that came with carrying a living memory of the richness of prewar Jewish Europe.

Though Jewish Renewal, the movement he helped midwife, remains marginal by the standards of the major Jewish denominations, many of the ritual innovations he fostered have long since gone mainstream — from the use of musical instrumentation during services to the incorporation of Eastern meditative practices.

Few Jewish spiritual leaders could match the scope of his erudition, steeped as he was not only in sacred texts and Jewish mysticism but also in contemporary psychology and Eastern spirituality. He was a Yiddish speaker proficient in the vernacular of modern science and computer technology, an academic capable of creating transformative religious experiences for his followers.

“He was a whole world,” said Rabbi David Ingber, spiritual leader of the Manhattan congregation Romemu and a leading figure among the younger generation of Renewal rabbis. “There was no one like him when he was alive, and now that he’s gone, there will never be anyone like him.”

Born in Poland in 1924 into an Orthodox family with Belzer Hasidic roots, Schachter-Shalomi was raised in Vienna and arrived in the United States in 1941. He was ordained as a Chabad rabbi but strayed far from his Orthodox roots, eventually helping to found a movement that fused the ancient and postmodern into a kind of liberal Hasidism.

Like the Hasidic masters of Europe, Schachter-Shalomi encouraged his followers to seek a direct experience of the divine through practices inspired by the Jewish mystical tradition. He embraced a decidedly liberal ethos, championing equal roles for men and women in religious life, welcoming gays and lesbians and promoting doctrines like eco-kashrut that integrated contemporary concerns into Jewish practice.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, which for a time was joined with ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, recalled a moment in 1971 when Schachter-Shalomi was leading a service in Washington and asked permission to separate the men and women.

Mindful of the feminist critique then gaining currency in progressive circles, Waskow objected. Schachter-Shalomi explained he was seeking to create a polarity between masculine and feminine energies and asked if it would be acceptable to keep the genders physically together but separate their voices. Waskow agreed.

“He was clearly a great and knowledgeable teacher — and he listened when a newbie said ‘No!’” Waskow wrote last week in a remembrance. “That made him a real teacher.”

Schachter-Shalomi pioneered ritual innovations that were groundbreaking at the time, including meditation, ecstatic dance and drums and other musical instruments in religious services. He led prayers in the vernacular, reading Torah from a scroll but translating it into English on the fly while maintaining the traditional cantillation — a feat he could carry off with seeming aplomb well into his ninth decade.

Though he lost family members to the Nazis, Schachter-Shalomi believed it was a mistake to attempt a restoration of the Jewish world destroyed by the Holocaust. Instead, he felt that Jewish traditions needed to be renewed, harmonized with new ways of viewing reality that emerged in the 20th century, much in the way theology had to be reordered following Galileo’s demonstration that the earth was not the center of the universe.

Schachter-Shalomi spoke often of a paradigm shift made necessary by worldview-busting events — the moon walk, Auschwitz and Hiroshima were favored examples — that were so earth-shattering they rendered traditional Jewish modalities irrelevant. He wanted Jews to get over what he called their “triumphalist” sense that they had a monopoly on religious truth in favor of an “organismic” model that saw Judaism as one of many tributaries of the divine river.

He was a believer in a radical ecumenism, fascinated by the ways other traditions “get it on with God.” During the historic Jewish dialogue with the Dalai Lama in 1990, Schachter-Shalomi captivated the Tibetan leader with a lengthy presentation on kabbalistic cosmology.

Along with the legendary composer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Schachter-Shalomi was among the earliest emissaries dispatched by the Lubavitcher rebbe to do outreach on college campuses. But he drifted from the strictures of Orthodoxy, exploring other mystical traditions and immersing himself deeply in the counterculture. His LSD experience, Schachter-Shalomi said later, had confirmed certain “intimations” he had previously about the nature of the spiritual world.

He was a leading figure in the growth of the Havurah movement, the small prayer groups that emerged in the 1960s and rejected institutionalized synagogue Judaism in favor of home-based worship, presaging the rise of today’s independent minyans.

Schachter-Shalomi married four times and fathered 11 children, including one through a sperm donation to a lesbian rabbi.

An inveterate boundary crosser, he declined to choose between the social justice imperatives and progressive politics of Reform Judaism, the spiritual rigor and devotion of traditional Orthodoxy and the mystical impulses of Hasidism. He wanted all of them.

The other Jewish streams “all had their own truths and languages, but they were partial, and Reb Zalman didn’t want a partial expression of religious life,” Ingber said. “He wanted a holistic expression of religious life.”

In the 1990s, Schachter-Shalomi left Philadelphia, where he had held a teaching post at Temple University, to assume the World Wisdom chair at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired liberal arts college in Boulder, Colo. There ensconced as the “Boulder rebbe,” Zalman received scores of visitors in his basement study, many of them seeking inspiration and solace on their own journeys away from Orthodoxy.

In his later years, as Schachter-Shalomi began to relinquish many of the leadership responsibilities of the Renewal movement, he came to focus his declining energies on preparing himself and his followers to face his inevitable death. Schachter-Shalomi was driven by a belief that the existing Jewish toolbox was lacking the instruments to navigate the later stages of life — what he came to call the December years.

In 1997, he co-authored “From Age-ing to Sage-ing,” an attempt to recast the golden years as something other than a period of decline. And in March, journalist Sara Davidson published the book “The December Project,” the product of nearly two years of weekly meetings the two conducted in Boulder.

“The whole teaching that he wanted to impart to people was that you will come to the end at some point, and at that point the work is letting go — letting go of your ties, letting go of your loved ones, letting go of everything,” Davidson said.

Despite his failing health, Schachter-Shalomi continued to teach until the very end. One month before his death, he led a retreat at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in northwestern Connecticut for Shavuot. His appearance there had been an annual event, though he had missed the year before because he was too unwell to travel.

After the holiday, Schachter-Shalomi fell ill with pneumonia and spent a week in a hospital in Hartford, Conn., before being flown back to Boulder, where he died in his sleep on the morning of July 3.

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Classroom Controversy

2014-07-02 11:37:58 lbridwell
The “Arab World Studies Notebook,” an anti-Israel text, has appeared in the public school curriculum of Newton, Mass. (Amazon/JNS)

The “Arab World Studies Notebook,” an anti-Israel text, has appeared in the public school curriculum of Newton, Mass.
(Amazon/JNS)

An anti-Israel text that school officials and some Jewish organizations say was removed from a Boston suburb’s public school curriculum during the 2011-12 academic year was being distributed to students longer than the aforementioned parties let on, new research shows. Furthermore, references to the controversial text remain on a website that is routinely visited by those students to access materials for class.

The Boston-based advocacy group Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT) said in late May that the “Arab World Studies Notebook” (AWSN), a Saudi-financed text on Middle East history that falsely claims Israeli soldiers murdered hundreds of Palestinian nurses in Israeli prisons, was still being used in at least three separate classes during the 2012-13 school year in the public school system of Newton, Mass.

In a letter to Robert Trestan, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) regional director, and Jeremy Burton, executive director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Boston, Newton School Committee Chair Matt Hills wrote that APT’s allegation is “without merit.”

“The ‘evidence’ submitted [by APT] is a course outline, developed by a new teacher in the summer of 2012, with a section on Islamic dynasties,” wrote Hills. “The new teacher initially included the AWSN readings on Islamic dynasties in the early syllabus. However, a veteran teacher saw the outline and ensured that the new teacher understood that the AWSN could not be used, and the readings were removed and never distributed. At no time was the AWSN used.”

But Hills’s claim that the AWSN was removed during the summer of 2012 is seemingly refuted by a downloadable lesson plan that remains on the independent website of teacher Faye Cassell, of Newton South High School’s history and social science department. The lesson plan contains two assignments called “Arab World Studies reading” — references to the AWSN — due Oct. 2 and Oct. 3, 2012. The Microsoft Word document containing the lesson plan was last edited during the academic year on Sept. 22, 2012 and shows that Cassell’s lesson was scheduled to begin two days later.

Although the website is not officially affiliated with Newton South, Cassell uses the site to distribute materials to her students, meaning those students may still come across the references to AWSN. The teacher’s 2013-14 lessons plans, however, are not currently posted on the website. In a public records request, APT obtained the same lesson plan that can be accessed by visiting this webpage on Cassell’s site. The lesson plan can also be downloaded here.

“The teacher who created the lesson plan kept a website for her classes where she told students, ‘Here you will find all the lesson plans, handouts and assignments for 9th Grade Ancient World History,’” Ilya Feoktistov, APT’s research director, said. “The same exact version of the lesson plan that we showed to the ADL and JCRC is to this day still up on her website, and the AWSN readings are still in the lesson plan. They were never removed before being distributed to students through the website. Furthermore, the lesson plan was finalized just hours before the beginning of classes listed in the lesson plan, not during the previous summer as Hills alleges.”

The ADL and JCRC, however, parroted the Newton School Committee’s stance and criticized APT after receiving Hills’ letter, which responded to those groups’ inquiry into the AWSN issue. In a joint statement on June 6, ADL and JCRC said Hills’ letter indicates how “APT’s assertion, like others before it, turned out to be inaccurate.”

“Mr. Hills reports that, in fact, AWSN was not actually used in connection with the syllabus in question in 2012 or at any time since the committee represented it was no longer being used,” ADL and JCRC stated.

The groups proceeded to lament, “The leveling of accusations ought to take place considerably more scrupulously than has occurred in connection with this matter. Careful, responsible, and civil discourse is far preferable to exaggerated or misleading accusations that are unsupported by the facts.”

Advertisements placed in Boston-area newspapers by APT last fall called out Newton school officials over the alleged presence of anti-Israel materials in the curriculum not limited to the AWSN. The ads claimed the appearance of texts in Newton schools including “A Muslim Primer,” which claims that astronaut Neil Armstrong converted to Islam, but that the anti-Muslim U.S. government warned him “to keep his new religion to himself or he could be fired” from his government job; ”Flashpoints: Guide to World History,” which asserts that Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem, is the capital of Israel, and that Jerusalem is the capital of “Palestine;” and other materials.

In that instance, too, the ADL attempted to dismiss APT’s findings, joining leaders from the JCRC and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston’s Jewish federation) in a November 2013 statement which said that “based on a careful review of the materials at issue by ADL and JCRC, there is substantial reason to believe that the allegations made in the [APT] ad are without merit.”

At the same time, the ADL had refused to make its own findings on the teaching materials public. Furthermore, ADL officials contradicted themselves on the existence of an ADL report on Newton schools. Regional director Trestan told The Jewish Advocate newspaper at the time that a report of an ADL investigation did not exist, regional board chair Jeffrey Robbins had said, “It’s an internal report. People do this stuff internally all the time. … It involves all kinds of proprietary research.”

The ADL would eventually release its report on Dec. 30, 2013. The report again targeted APT’s ad campaign, stating, “While APT’s ad suggests that Newton uses the volume the “Arab World Studies Notebook” as a textbook to teach hate and extremism, it emerged that the reading that was singled out for criticism was highlighted by one teacher who used it on a sole occasion in 2011 when it was actually used to teach about bias, and not in the context of advancing a political viewpoint. the “Arab World Studies Notebook” has since been removed from Newton schools.”

In a January 2014 response to the ADL’s report, APT said the report “cannot be the original report presented to Boston Jewish leadership” and “appears to have been prepared in response to public doubts about the existence of any ADL report.”

“Despite previous ADL claims that its Newton schools report cannot be released due to the fact that ‘it involves all kinds of proprietary research,’ there is nothing that can be considered proprietary about the weakly researched content of the report released on December 30th. … Jewish leadership relied on a sham report by ADL, which was based primarily on trust in the Newton School officials’ verbal assurances to ADL leaders,” APT stated.

APT’s Feoktistov said this week that once the school year ends June 26, the group will attempt to gain insight into more recent Newton lesson plans by filing a public records request for the school system’s 2013-14 curricula.

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Kindred Spirits

2014-06-26 10:51:31 ebrown
Author and commentator Aryeh Spero prompted shouts of “Amen” during his invocation (Photos provided)

Author and commentator Aryeh Spero prompted shouts of “Amen” during his invocation (Photos provided)

Religious freedom, family values, fiscal policy and Israel were the primary drivers of discussion, as faith activists and Republican politicians gathered in Washington last weekend for the Road to Majority 2014 Conference put on by the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition. Despite the group’s reputation as mostly evangelical, Jewish speakers, pundits and issues were prominent on the agenda, as was quoting the Old Testament, an apparent nod to the broad range of inclusion that the group considers its goal.

Held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel from Thursday morning to Saturday night, the conference dished out the bread-and-butter fare of conservative politics, with speakers denouncing President Barack Obama’s foreign and domestic politics as well as expanding on such staples as abortion, fiscal responsibility and religious freedom. On the foreign affairs front, an active U.S. role in the Middle East and support of Israel as a strong regional ally were popular themes.

Sounding more like an evangelical preacher than the Orthodox rabbi that he is, author and commentator Aryeh Spero kicked off the conference by
delivering a fiery invocation answered by shouts of “Amen” from the several hundred people in attendance.

“And David said to the Philistines: Thou cometh to me with a sword and a spear but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, Lord of this holy nation you dare to mock and dismiss,” said Spero. “So my friends, we ask, who are these judges, these bureaucrats, these hedonists of Hollywood, that they should come and taunt America and defy the living God upon whose word this Judeo-Christian nation was founded?

“The brazen and the prideful have stood over us to transform this country by first transforming our language; by redefining our historic and biblical understanding of marriage; of life in the womb and outside the womb; our view of freedom of conscience, and especially our right to freedom of religion as opposed to only freedom of worship,” he continued.

This was followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, recited by Sammy, Ezra and Dara Berger — the children of Orthodox Jewish Republican activist, donor and obstetrician Alan Berger of Englewood, N.J. — the boys wearing their kippot on stage.

Other Jewish speakers on the program included Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians; nationally syndicated talk radio host Michael Medved and his wife Dianne, a clinical psychologist and best-selling author; and conservative Jewish comedian Evan Sayet.

“While clearly the overwhelming majority of members of the organization are evangelicals, I believe the values that we’re advocating as a matter of public policy are based on the Bible and natural law and based on biblical principles of the importance of family, of hard work, of individual self-initiative,” Ralph Reed, the organization’s chairman and former executive director of the Christian Coalition, told the Washington Jewish Week, adding that all of the coalition’s policy positions are based on Mosaic Law.

“I think there’s tremendous continuity between the Old Testament and New Testament on the values that we advocate and while many of our members hold to Christian faith, you’re not required to hold to that faith,” continued Reed. “We have an open membership policy. We’re open to people of all faiths or no faith at all and particularly on issues relating to the security of Israel as the Jewish state.”

Reed estimates that in previous years, between 5 and 10 percent of the conference attendees were Jewish.

According to development director Orit Sklar, the conference did add more specifically Christian geared programing to cater to its core audience, such as a Christian music performance.

“The important thing to us is to make sure that we bring together people who understand the importance of Judeo-Christian values in our society and that we have programing for both communities,” said Sklar. “We very much have an outreach effort and an interest in growing the membership of our organization within the Jewish community. It goes with the understanding that people of faith were crucial in the founding of this country and they need to have a voice in government today.”

Public perception of the organization has focused on its evangelism, which according to Sayet, may keep some Jews away for the wrong reasons.

“A lot of Jews wrongly feel safer allied with a party that has no faith over a party that has the Christian faith, and they’re wrong. Because those with no faith hate Judaism as much as they hate Christianity,” Sayet, a non-practicing Jew, said. “They hate the notion of faith. The people of faith are closer to each other than Jews are to the seculars.”

House Majority Leader-elect Kevin McCarthy was one of many guest speakers at the conference.

House Majority Leader-elect Kevin McCarthy was one of many guest speakers at the conference.

Of course the big draw of the conference was top tier politicians, many with their sights set on winning the GOP’s nomination for president in the 2016 election. These included Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, TV host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

Christie criticized the Obama administration for its lack of leadership in the world, telling attendees that leadership includes clearly making sure that friends and adversaries know who they are around the world.

“And we are seeing now all across this world that this administration’s pulling back of American influence and American ideas around the world is having catastrophic effects in every corner of the globe,” Christie said. “That’s not anything more than the failure of the American leader to speak clearly, profoundly and inspirationally about what America’s role is, whether it’s drawing a red line in Syria and then not enforcing it; hurting America’s credibility and allowing the Russian leader to fill the vacuum of leadership in a way that will not be good for the world; and then watching how that movement moves from Syria, our lack of engagement, to now causing the issues their causing in Iraq.”

Though Christie has drawn criticism for describing the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria as “occupied territories” at a Republican Jewish Coalition summit in Las Vegas earlier this year, and not mentioning Israel months later at the Champions of Jewish Values Gala hosted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, he praised the Jewish state this time around, and to thunderous applause.

“Worst of all, you have sitting in the midst of this, the beacon of hope, and democracy and respect for human rights in that section of the world — the state of Israel — who now feels at risk because they are no longer convinced that America is their unwavering friend because of the actions of this administration,” he said. “That’s wrong. Israel is our friend. We need to stand up for it and fight for it.”

With only the rare exception, almost all of the bible passages evoked by the speakers came from the Old Testament. Spero told WJW that he considers this to be a historic shift.

“When I was younger, as a kid, Christians generally were all New Testament oriented. Some of the Catholic community had actually rejected the Old Testament and among Protestants, they accepted it but it wasn’t their bread and butter,” he said. “But you’re seeing a tremendous shift here historically into emphasis on the Old Testament. Which is wonderful —that’s another reason why they’re very supportive of Israel.”

More rhetorical fireworks came later that day, as the attendees filled a meeting room in the basement of the U.S. Capitol to be addressed by Republican lawmakers. In his remarks to the group, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, who is not seeking reelection in November, invoked the Holocaust, telling attendees that “modern day gas chambers are being constructed as you sit here, stand here, as I talk to you, they’re being constructed. And they’re being constructed by people that say, ‘We’re going to wipe out Israel and we’re going to wipe out the United States’ and they’re building what they need to do that.”

When pressed for clarification, Gohmert said that he was referring to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“The Iranian leaders have made clear they want to wipe the ‘little Satan’, Israel, off the map and they’ve made clear they consider the United States the ‘great Satan’, and we need to go too,” he explained.

Departing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who lost to a Tea Party challenger in his state’s Republican Primary earlier this month, canceled his appearance due to “scheduling issues,” although attendees suspected that he didn’t want to deflect attention from the newly elected majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California.

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com     
JNS.org contributed to this story.

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